The Formation of an Indigenous Ally: Steps along the road to reconciliation

What a difference five years makes.

In May of 2016 I was installed as Dean and Rector of St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Kamloops BC, a city now recognized all over the world as the place where 215 unmarked graves were recently identified, the final resting places of children who never returned home from the local Roman Catholic Indian Residential School. Knowledge of their deaths, hidden from their families at the time, kept secret over decades through the withholding of records and the silence of colonial witnesses is as horrifying as the physical and sexual abuse, the cultural and linguistic deprivation visited on survivors and those no longer with us, all former students of the Residential Schools. These interred bodies, their physical, emotional and spiritual lives were until recently lost in the vagaries of time. Those who birthed and parented them with those who remember and miss them now live with the consequences of a devilish disruption and deception.

What a difference five years makes.

I have learned so much about the Indian Residential Schools in my time here in Kamloops and at other times and in other places. Recently retired, when preparing my final service at St. Paul’s on April 25, 2021, I ferreted out the liturgy used for my induction. Amongst other special features of that service are two wonderful hymns written for the occasion by a good friend, the celebrated Irish Canadian hymnwriter, Herbert O’Driscoll. They each added to the installation celebration, but I was surprised to note how they simply would not work for my farewell celebration.

My knowledge and experience have changed; the reconciliation experience for all of us in the Territory of the People has deepened. We can no longer celebrate our past in the same way. For my final service I needed to acknowledge and feature in a significant way the effects of colonization, a word I only began to grasp a couple of years ago. As I said, my knowledge, our knowledge has deepened and matured. My engagement is best described as the evolution of an ally–one who joins another in common cause, expressed through intentional and sustained listening and where appropriate and invited, speech.

Many people ask me right now what the next step in the reconciliation journey looks like. To read books or attend rallies is great, but for many that’s not enough; such actions may or may not be transformative for those who wish to walk as an ally. My response goes something like “continue on the journey of discovery, which will inevitably include shock and horror, tremendous sadness, certainty some guilt and above all insight and truthful discovery . . . It’s a lot of work, it’s soul stretching word, but it is work worth doing.” This all sounds rather theoretical. Perhaps readers might appreciate knowing something of my own journey of discovery, not a model to be emulated, but a chronology of one person’s particular journey of discovery. I take time to name my teachers along the way and am so grateful for each of their contributions to my understanding. If my journey inspires you to discover your own teachers or companions or elders, all the better.

1982

On the hunt for a job in Whitehorse in August 1982, having taken me on a tour of various downtown locations, Wanita, an indigenous street worker employed by the Anglican Diocese of Yukon asked me if I realized that the Federal Government (spearheaded by then “Indian-Affairs” Minister Jean Chretien, with others the author of the White Paper (sic) of 1969 titled: Indian Policy) has a plan to assimilate “Indians” into mainstream British/Canadian political culture. I said that can’t be true.! Well it was, and still is for some, true! It was the first time I heard the word assimilate. Step 1

1983

Standing outside the Fort Nelson Laundry and Dry Cleaners in Northern BC where I worked in the summer of 1983 John explained to me for the first time that if you treat a people, any people, in a condescending manner, what we would now call paternalistically, then they will react accordingly–You create relationships of dependence. Step 2

1988

While attending seminary in Saskatoon in 1988, I remember Bobby, a teacher from the Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program (SUNTEP) meeting with a group of us seminarians for a time of storytelling and life-sharing. I attended a feast where an elder/shaman spoke on what we called at that time “native spirituality.” During three years of seminary training, I studied with fellow students Murray Still (now a respected elder, priest and trauma counsellor), Arthur Anderson (retired Qu’Appelle Diocesan elder) and now Bishop Sidney Black. I learned much from these gentlemen but had so much more to learn. Step 3

1990

In the early months of my ordained ministry I remember Archbishop David Crawley telling a clergy conference (my first) that our Church legacy in the Residential Schools would change the shape and reputation of the Anglican Church of Canada forever. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about at the time. Step 4

2001

I attended the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada in Kitchener/Waterloo in July 2001. It was a watershed moment for me personally and for our church. I watched a video of former Primate Michael Peers apologize (in 1993) in grave and sincere language to survivors of Residential Schools and their descendants. I have since discovered that his comments were influenced in both tone and detail by an earlier apology given by Bishop Jim Cruickshank to survivors and descendants of St. George’s Residential School students in Lytton BC, a place where the building no longer stands but the church building, and the memories remain.

Another feature of the 2001 General Synod was the Blanket Exercise, where over 300 of us indigenous and settler together, stood in a large gymnasium on blankets strewn across the floor, blankets which represented the geography of Canada. As the story of colonization was told the blankets were pulled back as our options for life and livelihood were strategically restricted or removed; we were separated and at times forced to move elsewhere on the blankets. Our numbers dwindled as disease, poverty, trauma and hopelessness decimated our population. I have since repeated this exercise in two other settings and hope to do so again where and when possible. Step 5

2002

Moving inland to my second ordained parish role in Summerland in the BC Interior, I responded to the provincial Government BC Treaty Referendum, which was racist, incoherent and grammatically incorrect by delivering my mail-in ballot with over 160 others to Grand Chief Stewart Philip for destruction. Several people left the parish and expressed considerable anger as a result. Step 6

2005

Returning to Vancouver Island and to Colwood (Victoria) in 2005 I quickly became aware of land use and land claims issues. As is often the case, such competing claims arose from golf course development desires (See Oka below). I was told by one prominent parishioner to “leave it alone.” Also in these early Colwood Years I met Ruth D’Hollander, the shepherd leader of Aboriginal Neighbours (a successor to the earlier group Project North, a group I had encountered earlier but had failed to appreciate its value and mission) who worked so hard to support indigenous language revitalization, the fruit of which is clearly evident today.

I also began to encounter the ministry and teaching of Dr. Martin Brokenleg who introduced us to the reality of inter-generational trauma. To those who say to others “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” well it’s not that simple. Step 7

2006

Sometime around 2006 I joined a dozen members of the General Synod Ecojustice Committee in travel to Kingfisher Lake in Northern Ontario in what is now called the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, one of the Dioceses in the Anglican Church of Canada. Over seven consecutive days we lived and learned some of the ways of indigenous northern peoples who as Anglican Christians also prepare leaders for ministry throughout the province and wider Church.

On Sunday morning we joined with dozens of newly confirmed Christians, their families and friends in a lively worship service full of music, celebration, colour and laughter. We took our turn broadcasting on local radio; I was privileged to jam with local musicians at a large feast as I tried to follow the sometimes unusual (to me) beats and pulses in songs performed in many languages, a similar opportunity subsequently repeated at national church gatherings. Step 8

2007

Early in my Colwood years I was so proud to be able to host and co-facilitate Environment Justice Camp in the summer of 2007. Our gathering commenced with comments from a gifted storyteller and language teacher named John, a teaching elder from the Tsartlip First Nation on Vancouver Island, who described the potential demise of his nation given the likely loss of language and culture. The principal challenge was to retain and teach a new generation the oral language as at that time there were only a half dozen or so living speakers, all elders and all elderly. Viewing their website today, it seems they have succeeded; a good news story for sure! Step 9

2010

I enjoyed the second of my vocational sabbaticals studying the connection between spirituality and photography at the University of Victoria’s Centre for the Study of religion and Society in 2011. Part of that project involved journalistic photography and justice. A colleague, Terry encouraged me to study an iconic Canadian photograph, specifically the image of a Canadian Militia soldier eyeball to eyeball with a Mohawk Warrior in the standoff during 1990 at Oka, Quebec. This study led me into a deep engagement with land, conflict and indigenous rights.

The Minister of Indian Affairs at the time was Tom Siddon who features prominently in a National Film Board documentary about the showdown. In retirement Tom moved to Penticton where he sung in a chamber choir I conducted; we never discussed Oka however.

A UVIC Indigenous Studies Professor who as a Mohawk himself was present at the confrontation reviewed my work favourably; too bad it was not prepared earlier as publication could have helped mark the twentieth anniversary of the standoff. Photography aside, my conclusion at the time was that such conflict would continue to erupt. . . and so it has. Step 10

2011

Travelling further afield, it was my joy to meet Dr. Andrew Leake at a conference I organized in Lima, Peru for the Anglican Communion Environmental Network. in 2011. The son of missionary parents who lived amongst indigenous communities in Salta, Northern Argentina. Andrew continues in a similar though unique way. He is well described as an environmental missionary. As an ally he stands with indigenous people and communities who face displacement from their traditional lands so that large scale Swiss-based corporate agriculture can produce soy and other products for export to China as feed for a growing cattle industry. It is ironic that I discovered such brutal injustice (sometimes including serious violence) so far away from home; such awareness however has made me more alert to forced relocation here in Canada. Step 11

2012

Now to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and a regional gathering in Victoria in 2012. With a parishioner and a number of Anglican clergy, all wearing our collars I heard stories which defied belief, with names named and painful memories expressed within often emotionally wrenching testimony. Truth telling is as hard as it is necessary—there were times when I wanted to escape the room, but I stayed out of respect, and of necessity. I especially recall a gathering across the street from the commission meetings at the old Crystal Garden hosted by CBC personality Sheelagh Rogers. I was too shy to speak in that forum but should have, as the reality of the land question came into sharp focus for me at that particular gathering. So much reconciliation will occur when land is tangibly re-distributed, repurposed and returned to the original owners and inhabitants. A recent gift of three pieces of land restored to local First Nations on Vancouver Island is so inspiring, so generous and so necessary. Step 12

Speaking of the TRC I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Justice Murray Sinclair’s comments on CBC The National recently. His leadership of the TRC process has been so generous, kind, tenacious, articulate and compassionate. I further recall the book by another jurist, the late Mr. Justice Thomas Berger A Long and Terrible Shadow which I read in 1999 which first introduced me to the reality of land and cultural deprivation, especially in the northern Mackenzie Valley. Pipeline vs. people, once again.

2016

Arriving in Kamloops in April of 2016, attracted to ministry to what is now called the Territory of the People though formerly the Anglican Parishes of the Central Interior after the demise of the Diocese of Cariboo I hoped to connect with the life of local indigenous communities in a way not possible at least to me in my former diocese. Amongst others, I met the late Jimmy Toodlican, a pastoral elder, a beautiful storyteller and a very, very funny man who left us far too soon.

At the late Jim White’s funeral I received a request to host and find space for a poet known to others but not to me at the time, Dennis Saddleman whose poem Monster (widely available online) is as frightening as it is resilient. “Residential school, I hate you, I hate you Residential School” is delivered in anger, a perfectly legitimate complaint – and the school Dennis was forced to attend was the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Step 13

2017

I was a bit too late to enjoy the company of the late Ojibwa author and reflector, Kamloops-based Richard Wagamese (d. 2017) who had overcome so many challenges, addictions and depressions, but finally succumbed to despair and now enjoys a paradise denied him on earth. His book Embers and other fiction including Indian Horse (now a movie whose production he oversaw) and a personal favourite Medicine Walk continue to inform and inspire us all in our various walks. I have just returned to reading Embers reflections daily at dawn. Highly recommended. Step 14

2017

A very special experience awaited Kathie and I as we travelled to attend meetings of the Anglican Consultative Council 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand where the Anglican Church there is organized and embodied in a trinity of cultural environments: Settler Europeans, Mauri, and Polynesians, as the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. The presence of each cultural strand appears in leadership, liturgy, theology and practice. To see the three collaborate so well was inspiring, so much so that many see it as a model for the Anglican Church of Canada. There are cultural and linguistic reasons that such a model is difficult in the Canadian context (see below) but it seems to work very well in their global southern context. Step 15

2018

I would be remiss if I did not mention the advice and wise counsel of “the 2 Barbaras” and “the 2 movies” associated with them. The first witness is Bishop Barbara Andrews who as one with both Indigenous and Métis bloodlines described in so many ways to me a life living in several cultures simultaneously. Now retired, she is possibly best remembered for her collaborative management of the transition for Interior Anglicans from one political entity to a new way of being, the Territory of the People, of all people. The story is well told in a film titled Paths to Reconciliation: The Territory of the People Anglican Church.

It is difficult to precisely calculate the many ways the Rev. Barbara Liotscos has shown me and many others the realities of the colonization process, and the Church’s culpability in the emotional and social expropriation of the lives of indigenous, Métis and Innu persons and communities. In films such as Stolen Lands; Strong Hearts I saw in a powerful way the strength which comes to many through resilience, despite pain and disillusion, those now able to move forward in faith. A special joy in recent years in the Territory of the People is assembly gatherings where indigenous speech, music and proclamation abounds. Step 16 (a) and (b)

2019

Here at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Kamloops since 2019 we continue to acknowledge the land prior to all meetings and worship services. For Martin Brokenleg (see above) such a discipline is like a dripping water tap, which, drip, drip, drip reminds us of how and with whom we share the land, of how it came be the property of colonizers, and what part land plays in reconciliation going forward. I now continue this discipline in all my speaking engagements as well as in leadership in clubs and organizations. My connection with the land and those who enjoy its bounty are part of all my relations. Step 17

2019, summer

A pivotal moment for my own journey came at an Anglican General Synod in Vancouver in July of 2019 where then Primate Fred Hiltz offered another apology, which went deeper and more broadly than the earlier apology for abuse, this time an Apology for Spiritual Harm – an apology for our Church’s systemic role in the robbery of language and culture, our disrespect for indigenous traditions, our complicity with the agendae of European explorers and their sponsors who arrived here in North America and said “there is no one of value here” (Terra Nullius).

The Primate’s tone was sincere, his attitude contrite. To be in the room was a great honour as he knelt before elders of many Indigenous Anglican communities. I would say this event, backed up by a renewed commitment to suss out racist practices in our Church subsequent to the apology are a high point in our own church’s response, a response while imperfect,  welcomes and encourages an emerging fully determining Indigenous Church in the Anglican Church in Canada. Step 18

2019, fall

Back home again, I was invited in 2019 to join other Territory clergy and lay leaders, indigenous and allies, at a special celebration at the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School on a national day of remembrance, to remember those  children who never returned home from St. George’s Indian Residential School at Lytton BC. The names of over sixty students who died and never returned were printed on cards and distributed. In time, we spoke aloud the names of those no longer with voice, but memory. As the list of those known ended additional names of others lost were also shared. The discoveries continue to this very day. The room was as still as the memorializing was profound. And there were tears . . . and more tears . . . anger, respect and yes, strangely, wonderfully, hope. Step 19

2021 and beyond

Looking forward Kathie and I will be able to join friends just down the road at the Sorrento Centre which continues to deepen connections with the local First Nation,

The Secwépemc [səˈxwɛpməx], known in English as the Shuswap people, its elders and story tellers.

Here in Kamloops we continue to join together, some discovering for the first time, and others who have known of these events first hand for years, even decades, of historic attitudes, specific atrocities and present day racism still living furtively though sometimes on full display here and elsewhere.

Just today more truthful history unfolds with the further announcement of 751 unmarked graves on the Cowessess First Nation who announced a preliminary finding at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Southern Saskatchewan. And there will be others. Step 20

What a difference five years makes.

The next five will certainly bring more insight and experience for me personally and for all of us. Mine is but one journey of awareness and of the taking of responsibility. I have taken time to name particular people in particular places who have shared wisdom and insight for which I am immensely grateful. I have done this intentionally because it has been in these conversations, formal and informal that I have learned and shared in the reconciliation journey. On such occasions, humility in myself and others grows as truth is shared. As Pilate asked Jesus, “what is truth” our Lord’s silent answer was a giant Yes; the truth will set us all free.

As National Church Indigenous animator Melanie Delva shared in a sermon on National Indigenous Persons Day in 2018: “If you feel pity, well sure . . . Pity however blesses the status quo” (my paraphrase). We need to move beyond pity and the mere memory of things past. The forces driving the evil actions of many still abound; we see them a few blocks from where I live, yellow vests decrying the value of things held in common and beneficial for all, acting from a horrible fear, yearning for yesterday with no hope for tomorrow, seeking our anger and frustration to add to theirs.

There is a better way to live, for all of us, indigenous and settler, immigrant and refugee, disabled and specially abled. The way is love, but love requires truth . . . and responsibility. It all takes time, inner transition, patience and courage. I encourage you to reflect on your own growing self-awareness. Accept where you are right now, but please, accept the challenge to move beyond it.

Commenting on the 1996 novel The Comedians by Graham Green one author notes that “for Greene, remembrance is a political act: the revolutionary work . . . to remember the obscure dead and name truthfully what killed them.” Indeed, the obscure dead now have a very public and political voice. Believe it or not, this is good news. Do not shy away from the truth; embrace a truthful history and work towards a just and peaceful future. This is the work of an ally.

As I share my own evolution of awareness and engagement over many years, I join with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellgarde who explained on Twitter a couple of days ago: “The news that hundreds of unmarked graves have been found in Cowessess First Nation is absolutely tragic, but not surprising. I urge all Canadians to stand with First Nations in this extremely difficult and emotional time.

In my own way, I stand . . . and encourage all non-indigenous folk to likewise stand and share your own stories of discovery and awareness. Indigenous voices welcome and benefit from the testimony of allies. Allies need to learn from all voices including indigenous story keepers. Pay attention to them; May they help you to re-member, to re-construct and to reconcile what has been with what can and will be.

2021 and beyond . . .

What a difference five years makes.

The next step

11 thoughts on “The Formation of an Indigenous Ally: Steps along the road to reconciliation

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  1. Appreciated your writings I need to rely on the experiences of others as I continue to learn more of what I need to understand as I can not experience in even a small way what it is like being a white settler first generation canadian i have so much more to learn I will continue to pray for further discernment on this subject

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  2. Amazing work Ken. I really was not aware your journeys were so connected and meaningful! I will read it again to begin to absorb the details. Ironically I have always been interested in the arts and culture of Indigenous people. I had native dancers at my retirement party, met with dancers for a work event , and after retirement I arranged for dancers at the BC Senior games in Duncan. I guess I always wondered what led me in their direction.

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    1. I was not aware of the connections until I started writing them down. I friend said that we need stories of allies to accompany the indigenous truth-telling. It was a fun project.

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  3. Thank you Ken. I too gained so much from the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. For there are so many parallels in Ireland – as you will discover, I remember deep discussions about churches and their use of flags, emblems and symbols. Meanwhile in Ireland, the unmarked graves of children are gradually being discovered – the most recent in Tuam in the west of Ireland in the grounds of a Mother and Baby Home, Here too the journey has many states to run

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  4. Sixty one years ago I was sent by the British government to work as a doctor in Teso District in Uganda, East Africa. I was one of three doctors trying to attend to the needs of half a million people, – a formidable experience, but one which endeared me to working with indigenous peoples.
    I returned to Britain for surgical training and in 1966 I was contacted by a surgical clinic in Prince Rupert, BC. I jumped at the opportunity to work there and arrived in March of that year with my wife and three small children.
    My greatest shock on arrival was discovering the appalling living conditions of the Tsimshian people.
    I had not expected to find THIRD WORLD conditions in Canada, which considered itself to be a First World country.
    I have now been blessed to work and live with the Nlaka’pamux and Syilx nations for the past forty six years, and have witnessed the great improvements in their living and working conditions, but there is still much more to be done.
    I recognize that I do not own the land that my house sits upon.
    I gratefully consider my self a guest in this beautiful territory.

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  5. Thanks Ken, you are indeed an inspiring guy. Thank you for your insights, sharing your grace in journey and for reminding me of Richard Wagamese. Trev.

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    1. and they would have enjoyed you at SSP very much. The Church has such strange and mechanical ways of recruiting and retaining good pastors such as yourself. And admittedly at that time I did not appreciate your rich experience with indigenous friends and communities. Sigh. Enjoy your Trek. I also have a trek e-bike.

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